Cheap Thrills Are Not So Cheap: Why “Casual Gaming” Is Failing

Walking around San Francisco’s SOMA district last week, I noticed a dark cloud hanging overhead, and it wasn’t just the usual marine layer. Zynga, one of the heavy hitters in that area, is facing a dismal prognosis. The company that made its mark with Farmville and Mafia Wars via Facebook isn’t harvesting any cash crops this year. In fact, its stocks have plummeted almost 80 percent in 2012. That’s a whole lotta lettuce.

The casual gamer market was great for a while, but, as the label suggests, the consumer doesn’t want to invest too much of his or her time playing around in virtual worlds, especially if he or she isn’t getting much out of it in real life. The entertainment value of these games weakens over time. A person can only obtain so many virtual cattle before he or she becomes virtually lactose intolerant–that is, a casual consumer can get sick of doing the same thing over and over again for only virtual rewards.

It’s not hard to hook a hardcore gamer on a new game, but the casual gamer is much harder to land and to keep interested. To maintain the relationship with the casual consumer, the consumer must have:

1) Constant stimulation and new content. As in a marriage, keeping things “spicey” will keep the relationship fresh. New games, new skins, new levels, special surprises, and more, at a constant rate, keep a person interested.

2) A sense of ownership and a personal connection. Not only the ability to customize a farm or a city, but also a consumer wants a personal connection to the brand, to know that the brand knows that he or she exists. Maybe he or she gets a personalized membership card, or a name on a virtual wall. He or she wants to be heard, to make suggestions via social media or email, and to receive a human response.

3) Short engagements. Casual gamers do not want to spend all day on the computer or the phone. They have lives, schedules, kids, work, you name it. Sometimes only a few minutes per day is all they have to spend. Keep game play short enough so that a consumer can reap benefits without spending an hour of his or her time, unless they have it to spare.

4) Real world rewards and access. In the U.S. everyone expects to get something for nothing. Freebies and coupons abound. Inventing strategic ways to integrate the consumer’s real-world experiences with the virtual world, and offering incentives along the way keeps your consumer engaged. If a person must complete level 50 to earn a $25 coupon to Old Navy for back-to-school time, a busy mom is going to be more likely to eek out a few minutes a day to get there. Additionally, games designed with location or activity integration stand a better chance of being played via mobile for the casual gamer on the go.

5) NO SPAM! There’s nothing that would-be casual gamer hates more than being bombarded by game requests. At its height, Zynga had its users spewing Mafia Wars and Farmville requests all over Facebook. Would-be casual gamer, Yours Truly, politely declined, declined, declined, declined, and then threw up her hands and screamed, “ARRRRGGGHHHHHH! Stop with the Farmville requests already!” Often it was the same people, cramming cows and pigs daily down the throats of their Facebook friends. Want a surefire way to guarantee that no one will ever play your game, ever? That’s probably it. Put a cap on the spam, or, better yet, find more imaginative ways for people to share how much fun they are having playing your game.

Can Zynga’s future be recovered via mobile? Perhaps with a major company overhaul, tightening the proverbial belt, and coming up with more cost-effective promotional ideas beyond pay-per-click advertising (it’s costly, limiting and should be used very strategically), they can turn the ship around, but they are going to have to come up with some new strategies, and fast.

Are you a mobile gaming startup in need of marketing help? I am currently available for contract or full time work in Los Angeles, CA or the San Francisco Bay area. Please feel free to reach out to me so that we can discuss how my tech biz savvy and creative smarts can go to work for your company.

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